Amarah's Corner: Professional dancer opens arts center for kids living in the heart of america’s opioid epidemic, Part 1:

Hi! My name is Amarah. Kids are important to Jesus, and they’re important to me.

I am excited to share this column, Part 1, today, and Part 2, next week! I found this story, yesterday (Aug. 15) and I can hardly wait to share it with you. This is what I talked about in my columns, Sept. 29, 2016, and March 2, 2017 - the importance of kids like me being encouraged and supported in their passion which, for me, was playing the trumpet, and later included writing, singing, acting and dance, but for other kids could be sports, painting, drawing, playing the piano, all the above, and more! Supporting and encouraging kids in their interests and passion can and does, save their lives, especially when their parents are addicts. I should know.

(Kids like me are kids and adults of all ages whose parents are, or were, drug addicts and alcoholics, kids who have suffered, or who are suffering, abuse and neglect on multiple levels, and kids who are victims of bullying).

Growing up, Aaron Martinez watched both of his parents struggle with addictions. Ultimately, his older sister died from a heroin overdose and his father overdosed from prescription painkillers.

At times, it was hard for Martinez to imagine another future.

“People would tell me, ‘You’re going to be a drug addict, you’re going to be a tecato (heroin addict), you’re going to be worthless,” said Martinez, now 22. “For the longest time, I believed them just because of what I was seeing in my life.”

In northern New Mexico’s Rio Arriba County, stories like these aren’t unusual. As a center of the opioid epidemic, it has one of the highest drug overdose death rates in the country - almost four times higher than the national average. Just last week, the county received a $2 million grant to combat the problem. Yet addiction is just one of the challenges in this region, where nearly 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

But artist Roger Montoya is making sure young people like Martinez can find a different path through his nonprofit, Moving Arts Espanola. Since 2008, his community arts center has provided arts classes, free meals, tutoring and support to more than 5,000 children and youth.

It’s not the path Montoya originally envisioned. He’d been a professional dancer in New York, but by the late 1980s, he was HIV-positive and had lost his partner and many friends to AIDS. Returning to New Mexico, he felt like he was coming home to die.

“My soul was really aching with such loss and grief,” said Montoya, 58. “It seemed inevitable that I would be on that same track.”

Immersing himself in painting, a lifelong passion, helped restore his health. “Coming home, with my family, my art, really set the tone for me to begin to heal,” he said. “Art is medicine.”

Now, Montoya brings the healing power of the arts to local children five days a week. Several hundred students each year take part in classes ranging from gymnastics and circus arts to fashion design and musical arts like singing, violin, ballet and hip hop. The group also celebrates local culture by teaching traditional Mexican dancing, known as folklorico, as well as Spanish flamenco dancing and guitar.

“We believe that if kids can taste a smorgasbord of opportunity, they’re surely going to find some creative pathway to connect,” Montoya said.

“Many of our kids come to us traumatized. ... When I see a child’s face and spirit come to life, I don’t need any more evidence that it’s working. I just know we need more.”

Aaron Martinez is one of the group’s success stories. In grade school, he learned tumbling from Montoya, a former college gymnast. He vividly remembers the excitement he felt when Montoya helped him land a backflip for the first time.

“(It) just exploded this positive energy inside of me,” Martinez said. “Ever since ... it’s made me feel like I could do so much more with my body and so much more with my heart.”

Martinez poured his energy into sports, which helped him stay away from drugs. Today, he teaches gymnastics at the center and plans to enter college this fall. With Montoya’s encouragement, he also shares his story at anti-opioid summits.

Seeing young people grow, as artists and as people, gives Montoya great satisfaction.

“You can feel when they have that sense of pride and confidence,” he said. “It’s a little fire in there and we just feed it every day a little more.” ~Kathleen Toner, CNN


Part 2, next week!

Thank you for reading my column.

Write to me, “Kids Like Me” P.O. Box 354, Alamosa, CO 81101,

Remember, Jesus Loves You, and JESUS IS LORD!